AJR in the Classroom

Discussion questions for the April / May 2006 issue, along with suggestions for further readings on coverage of the Iraqi war,  the use of anonymous sources when covering illegal immigrants, newsroom transparency and ethics.



Story 1: "Out of Reach" | Story 2: "Too Transparent?" | Story 3: "Naming Names"  | Story 4: "For Sale"

Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq
Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner covered the war in Iraq for nearly a year, surviving a kidnapping attempt and a bombing. She at times sent translators into crowds with questions for sources, exchanged information with rival reporters and pretended to be Canadian or Ukrainian.

STORY 1: "Out of Reach: Extreme danger has made it very difficult for Western journalists to move around in Iraq. One casualty has been coverage of the lives of ordinary Iraqis."  By Sherry Ricchiardi 


MORE INFO FROM THE STORY:  Ricchiardi writes: "The perils of reporting in Iraq were underscored in January by the kidnapping of American freelancer Jill Carroll and by the explosion of a roadside bomb that seriously wounded ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt. ... The pressure to lay low has spawned terms like 'hotel journalism' and 'rooftop reporting' as correspondents struggle to cover one of the biggest stories of our time without being kidnapped or killed." Despite efforts to keep them safe, journalists say important stories are going untold.



  • Invite reporters who have covered war assignments (in Iraq, the Gulf War, the Viet Nam war, etc.) to come to class to speak about their experiences -- both in keeping safe in a war zone and in getting out the news and human-interest stories to readers. If the reporters have covered multiple wars, ask them to elaborate on the differences in their ability to move about to get stories. If no war correspondents are available to come to class in person, arrange a conference call for the class to participate in.

  • Possible midterm or final paper assignment: Ask students to research and write a 7-  to 10-page doublespaced paper, detailing differences in news organizations' staffing, security measures and reporting between the war in Iraq and the war in Viet Nam. Sources from books, magazines, newspapers and scholarly journals must be cited and included as end notes.



STORY 2: "Too Transparent?: It's healthy for news organizations to be much more open about their decision making than they have been in the past. But in response to relentless pounding from bloggers and other critics, is the transparency movement getting out of hand? By Rachel Smolkin


MORE INFO FROM THE STORY: Smolkin writes: "Are we trying too hard to explain ourselves, being too needy, wasting too much time on the therapist's couch, with a motley lot of bloggers, partisans and pundits as our Dr. Phil?"  And are the explanations being given by news organizations where they're most needed? The New York Times devoted 7,102 words to its May 11, 2003, expose of disgraced reporter Jayson Blair's misdeeds. But, Smolkin notes, it "offered little explanation of why it delayed for a year its December 16, 2005, bombshell report on the National Security Agency's eavesdropping on Americans without court-approved warrants."



  • Bloggers have been playing an increasing role in setting the news agenda and in watchdogging the mainstream media. Ask students to read Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell's Jan. 15 column on the newspaper's coverage of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Then ask students to read washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady's op-ed piece (see link below), explaining his decision to close down the comments area of one of post.com's blogs, after it was swarmed with less-than-polite reactions to Howell's piece. Students should then write an 800-word reaction piece: Would they have handled the blogging swarm differently, had they been calling the shots for washingtonpost.com? Were there other options available to Brady? Should a policy be put in place for the future - on handling blogging swarms - and if so, what should it say? Students should be prepared to discuss their papers in class. 

  • Possible midterm or final paper assignment: How well are newsrooms around the country explaining news decisions or gaffes? And how much more forthcoming have they become in the last few years, in response to increased citizen journalism? Ask students to research and write a 7-  to 10-page doublespaced paper. Sources from books, magazines, newspapers and scholarly journals must be cited and included as end notes.


STORY 3: "Naming Names:  Newsrooms are struggling with the dilemma of whether to use the names of illegal immigrants. Anonymous sources are under fire as threats to credibility. Yet identifying undocumented immigrants could lead to their deportation." By Lucy Hood 


MORE INFO FROM THE STORY: Hood reports that immigrants now make up 12 percent of the population and, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, an estimated 30 percent of them are in the country illegally. Under the current political climate, reporters are finding many are unwilling to talk unless they can withhold their name. Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, offers this advice to reporters grappling with how to proceed: "You have to assess the risk and make a decision that minimizes the harm to that individual but maximizes the ability to tell the truth."



  • Invite in the local chapter president of the Society of Professional Journalists to moderate a discussion with at least one editor from a professional newspaper and one news director from an area TV station. Have them discuss with the class their suggestions and newsroom rules for use of confidential sources, particularly when it comes to the area immigrant community. How often does the publication or station rely on anonymous sources? Under what circumstances does it allow anonymous sources? What legal protections/counsel would the reporter have, if a local prosecutor subpoenaed him or her to reveal those confidential sources after publication? It might also be useful to invite in a representative from the local immigrant community, who could relay immigrants' concerns and also spell out for young reporters some of the cautionary language that they could use with sources who agree to talk on the record. (For instance, ethicists say immigrants should be made aware of some of the repercussions they could face for talking on the record.)

  • Ask students to write a 1,000- to 1,500-word paper detailing instances in which sources -- especially government and corporate whistleblowers and illegal immigrants - have gotten into trouble after talking on the record for publication (for example, they've been deported or lost their jobs). Students should discuss the reporters' interviewing and writing approaches and offer thoughts on whether alternative strategies could have been used to minimize harm. Students should be required to include formal citations for passages quoted, as either end notes or foot notes.



STORY 4: "For Sale: A Wisconsin radio station sells the naming rights to its newsroom," column by Deborah Potter


MORE INFO FROM THE STORY: WIBA-AM radio sold the naming rights to its newsroom to Amcore Bank - about a year after Milwaukee's WISN-AM sold its naming rights to PyraMax Bank. Do the deals further diminish the line between news and advertising? Spokesmen for Clear Channel Communications, which owns the stations, say there's no reason for concern. And spokesmen for the stations say the deals won't affect their news coverage. But Potter notes that "at a minimum, attaching the name of a local business to a newsroom creates a perception problem." Listeners may wonder how impartial the stations' reporters are when they cover banking issues, Potter writes.


  • How far is too far when it comes to blurring lines between news and advertising? The teacher should draw a line on the classroom board, with spokes coming out at regular intervals for broadcast practices that have been questioned by some watchdogs. Some examples from the column: Using Dunkin' Donuts coffee mugs prominently on a local news set;  selling businesses the rights to sponsor a news segment on a radio or TV news show; selling businesses naming rights to a newsroom. The teacher should lead the class in a discussion on what practices students find acceptable, and why, and what practices they find ethically problematic, and why. As each point is discussed, students should vote on whether they would allow such a practice in their newsroom, if they were in charge. Vote tallies should be put on the board next to each point.

  •  Ask students to write a 1,500-word research paper discussing some of the blurring lines between news and advertising that have arisen in the last five years at news Web sites. (Examples: corporate-sponsored pages for traffic updates; links to online book companies from online book reviews; searchable databases for restaurant reviews that don't make a clear distinction between paid content from advertisers and journalistic content from reporters.) Students should cite some of the practices and the debate surrounding those practices and state their opinions on whether the practices meet ethical standards for journalists. The research paper should include end notes or foot notes, citing sources quoted.



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Teachers' guide written by Chris Harvey, online bureau director at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism and former managing editor of AJR.
First two
items published April 3, 2006; third and fourth items published April 10, 2006, with additional links added April 11 and 12, 2006.

Copyright © 2006 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Permission is granted to freely print, for classroom use, up to 100 copies of the most up-to-date version of this document, as long as the document is not modified.